I wrote this post a long time ago. When I did it was a little too close to home for a company to have me publish it. Much time has passed. And I felt it was instructive still so I thought I would publish.
I decided to water down some details to protect the innocent. But both stories are still accurate. I hope it still resonates.
A while back I received a frantic phone call from the CEO of a company in which I invested. He had just received notice from a major media organization that they were going to run a very negative news story.
As you can imagine we began scrambling.
Our first request of the journalist was an appeal for time to digest his information, determine its accuracy, respond to his claims and then the story was his to run with. He granted us a few days.
The founder was as dumbfounded as I was. We had sat down with the entire executive team on 2 separate occasions a year before the journalist called and had a stated policy to be as “white hat” on this issue as the best in the industry.
We had greatly limited our feature set as a preemptive response to never be on the wrong side of this issue. We had agreed to a stated internal policy that even though taking this stance would mean our product would have considerably less traffic it was an important part of what we felt our long-term brand represented.
We went through the accusations of the journalists. It was such a small and narrow claim and something we felt was unfairly picking on us. We had no known major violations but the story was based on the possibility that we could be exploited.
When the journalist pointed out our potential weakness we shut down the loophole in less than an hour. That’s how prepared we were and how serious we were about the issue.
We decided on our strategy for a response:
- Highlight to the journalist our stringent policies and how long they had been in place
- Show the journalist examples of how we were much better on this issue than every other major Internet property. We showed the journalist exact examples across 5 or 6 of the most popular web properties on the Internet.
- We requested that the journalist either broaden the story to talk about how this problem existed on the Internet (and whatever judgment or angle he wanted to make about that topic) and include us as “one of many” (or bury the story altogether)
- Request that he show that our standards are an order-of-magnitude better relative to others in this broader article
- Make it clear to him that a narrow attack on us was both factually inaccurate and that it would be damaging to our tiny little startup if he did a “hit job” on just us.
He politely listened to our response. He told us he was on a deadline and needed to file the story quickly so that he didn’t have time to revisit the broader story. He took out some words in his article that we objected to.
I was livid.
I felt it was a hit job on us and didn’t refer to anybody else in the industry. Our largest and most important partner had called us within 24 hours grumbling. We were 6 months away from our next fund raising cycle. This wasn’t great.
We had prepared. We were ready to go live with the story that should have been written.
We were ready to point out the far reaches of this issue across the Internet and our extreme relative efforts to not let it be part of our service.
The company had their holding statement. They had articles and press releases written. Their PR firm was ready. I had outlined a blog post in support of their efforts and was ready to publish it.
And we braced ourselves.
The story ran in the print edition of a major news journal. But it wasn’t even on the home page of the online edition so you’d have to search for it or click into deep links to know it was there. And then we looked at the journalist’s Twitter feed – he didn’t Tweet the story. And he doesn’t have many followers.
A day passed. Nobody that I knew even read the article. There were no follow-on articles in the tech press or even other online mass media journals. I didn’t see a single Tweet or Retweet. We had a few people cancel their service but not many. And by the next week our user numbers were up.
We breathed a huge sigh of relief. And we held fire with our responses. And the air cleared. And life moved on.
In the post mortem I commented, “If it didn’t happen on Twitter, it seems it didn’t really happen at all.” If people had seen the article on the home page of the news outlets website it no doubt would have been Tweeted. So I guess there’s some correlation there.
But it wasn’t like it was going to get from the print edition directly into Twitter. So the story died. And we have taken an even more aggressive stance in our product on this issue. And life goes on.
The story then creeped into another experience with a different company.
Another company with whom I work got fantastic press around the launch of a new version of their product. Journalists were raving about the usefulness of the features of their product.
And then one journalist ran a story about “privacy concerns” that could come as a result of our product. We of course felt it was a misunderstanding of our product but I knew the story would stand anyhow.
200+ great stories; 1 negative. The negative story got about 4-5 copycat articles reinforcing the privacy issue.
The CEO & CMO called for my point-of-view to see what we should do. They were about to write a blog post defending the privacy issue and calling out why that journalist misunderstood the story.
“If you write a blog post then every one of your customers will read it and question the privacy issue and you yourself know that the article was a red herring.
Why legitimize it? If it were real we’d go back with a robust response. My sense … let’s watch the press – and let’s watch Twitter – and if the story gets no traction we can move on.”
And of course the Twitter impact was minuscule and passed like a brief storm. Had we written the blog post the storm clouds would have gathered for longer. And the Twitter effect would have been a direct bullseye for our target customers and partners.
1. If you make a major mistake and you know you could do better – own it early. Be honest, talk about what you’re doing to improve things, and move on. If you want to know how to handle crisis management in PR please refer to the post I wrote on the topic.
2. But if you believe you’re on the right side of the issue and you believe a journalist has gotten things wrong – take a breath. Spend your “crisis management time” preparing a response, thinking about the implications and being ready in case the issue spreads more widely. Be ready to pounce. But don’t pounce.
3. See if the article gets much reverberation. Do other outlets pick it up? Is it being discussed on Twitter? Is it being talked about in a place where your customers spend time?
4. If the article makes you really angry but doesn’t gather any steam – bite your lip, thank your lucky stars and MOVE ON! Don’t create your own media storm by responding.
5. DO NOT angrily attack the journalist or story on Twitter. I see this happen ALL THE TIME. When I read angry statements on Twitter about a story I think, “Wow. Ok. Now I’m aware of the issue.”
And I’m curious. So I go search for the article to see what all of the fuss is about. And I start to wonder how much of the article is really true or not. And what would have sunk beneath my consciousness is now squarely in my mind. And on the mind of those that follow you on Twitter. I suppose the very people whom you don’t want thinking about this issue.
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